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Editor's Note - Newspaper war stories

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By Tom McDonald

I think it was one of the greatest newspaper wars of our time — the battle between two Little Rock, Ark., newspapers, the Arkansas Gazette and the Arkansas Democrat.

I’m not sure the story I’m about to tell supports that contention, but I’ll tell it anyway. Just for the fun of it.

It was my first journalist job off campus. I was hired at the Gazette to take down scores and stats and write brief high school football game summaries.

Then, at the end of that season, the sports editor assigned me to cover and create two pages of content, twice a week, on junior high basketball in Little Rock.

Understand that the Gazette and Democrat were metro dailies, each with a statewide reach, and as far as I know, neither newspaper had ever covered junior high basketball. Even Wadie Moore, an Arkansas icon in the world of prep and college sports during those heady days, didn’t cover junior high sports. But Moore’s boss, the Gazette’s sports editor, had an idea that if we jumped in on junior high sports for the metro edition, the newspaper could get a leg up on local sales.

So he put me in charge of filling two inside pages twice a week with game stories and features of outstanding roundballers in grades 7-9. I was paid to “supervise” a ragtag group of freelance reporters, or stringers, whom I had to go out and recruit.

Needless to say, they weren’t exactly seasoned journalists (though one stringer in particular, Jeffery Stewart, showed great talent and it wasn’t long before he moved up and out; within a year he was the editor of a weekly newspaper on the outskirts of Little Rock).

I even “hired” my brother Don, not because of his experience as a sports writer (he had none), nor because of any ambitions to become a sport writer (he had even less of that), but because he had played basketball in high school and knew the game.

Of course, we were the peons of the sports department, which didn’t sit well with my bull-headed brother, who got crossways with the sports editor one night. Fortunately, I didn’t have to fire my brother. He quit.

I remember the first edition that included our junior high coverage. Sure enough, we blindsided the Arkansas Democrat with it, but three days later our competitor had a junior high sports page of its own. Both newspapers continued the coverage through the season, and during that winter of 1990, junior high basketball in Little Rock, Ark., was covered like it had never been covered before. Or, I’m fairly certain, since.

• • •

Slowly I worked my way up as a Gazette sports stringer — covering high school track and field and AAU basketball through the spring and summer.

I remember one night covering the Class A high school girls’ state track and field finals. Moore covered the boys’ finals and quickly sent his story in before they had even shut us out of the pressbox. I, on the other hand, couldn’t write that fast, so I had to move across the street to a pay phone to send in my story remotely.

Our “remotes” at that time consisted of a bulky telephone connection that attached to the phone’s mouthpiece, with a cord that ran to and plugged into my company-issued Radio Shack word processor. But I couldn’t get the story to transmit and the editor on the other end just kept telling me to try again.

Finally, he said, too late, I missed my deadline, and hung up.

I knew the Democrat would have the story and, because of me, the Gazette wouldn’t. I was a defeated peon who had a long, long drive back to Little Rock that night.

I thought my time as a journalist was over before it had even begun. But the next day, I found out that the sports desk had gotten in trouble, not me, because they didn’t take my story the old-fashioned way — by dictation.

My career was salvaged.

And that’s how I came to end up in Las Vegas.

OK, there’s a little more to it than that, but you get the idea. If you want to know more, call me and I’ll dictate it to you.

• • •

The following fall, I knew the end had come for the Arkansas Gazette when I called in one day to get my Friday night game assignment and Moore answered his extension drunk. I’m pretty sure he was sitting at his desk smoking a cigarette too, in defiance of the relatively new no-smoking-in-the-newsroom policy.

Damn straight. I’d have lit up too under the circumstances.

Less than a year later, the old Arkansas Gazette building was reopened as the Bill Clinton presidential campaign headquarters. I remember covering his election night, in November 1992, when the world descended on Little Rock.

At that point, I was a reporter at a little suburban newspaper on the outskirts of town, working for a former Gazette sports stringer, Jeffery Stewart.

Tom McDonald is editor and publisher of the Optic. He may be reached at tmcdonald@lasvegasoptic.com.